In Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, there is a portrait which many believe to be the only surviving image of the playwright Christopher Marlowe. The painting includes the Latin phrase (that can also be found tattooed on Angelina Jolie), “Quod me nutrit me destruit”: “That which nourishes me destroys me.”
If this portrait does indeed represent Marlowe’s image, then the motto is curiously apt, given the circumstances of his life and death. This year marks the 450th anniversary of Marlowe’s birth (his baptism, our first record of him, dates to February 26, 1564). Born just a few months prior to William Shakespeare, Marlowe was easily the better known of the two in Elizabethan London while they both worked there, a fact memorialized in the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love. He penned some of the era’s most memorable dramatic works, such as his two-part play Tamburlaine, Edward II, The Jew of Malta, and his most renowned, Doctor Faustus.
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But the known (and speculated) details of his life are as wild as any of his fictions. There is substantial evidence suggesting Marlowe may have been a spy for Queen Elizabeth’s government. He may have had something of a violent temper; his friend and fellow writer Thomas Watson killed a man when breaking up a duel Marlowe had gotten himself into, foreshadowing his famously violent end. On May 30, 1593, the twenty-nine-year-old Christopher Marlowe was stabbed through the eye by Ingram Frizer. The two had been part of a company of four men at a widow’s lodging-house (not an outright tavern, as the legend goes), and the coroner’s inquest asserts that Frizer and Marlowe quarreled over who would pay the bill — the “reckoning,” in sixteenth-century terms.
Of course, Marlowe’s own connections to the notoriously labyrinthine world of Elizabethan espionage, along with the similarly suspicious connections of the other three men, have led to any number of conspiracy theories, some more plausible than others. But amidst all the mysteries, one thing to which both his life and writings testify is that Marlowe had a peculiar genius for infuriating people; indeed, he seemed to take a perverse pleasure in getting under people’s skin. This tendency is manifest not only in his personal life but in his public role as playwright. The Jew of Malta is prefaced by the posthumous appearance of amoral political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli, who was widely reviled (at least theoretically) by Elizabethan audiences. Dido, Queen of Carthage and Edward II both feature less-than-subtle homosexual allusions. Such scenes may have led to some of the charges levied against him near the end of his life; he was reputed (among sundry charges) to have converted others to atheism and to have claimed “
Yet the bulk of these charges come from two sources: Catholic spy Richard Baines and Marlowe’s old roommate, the playwright Thomas Kyd, who was likely tortured into confessing. In other words, it is difficult to know how much, if any, of this information to credit. Conspiracies aside, however, Marlowe’s most lasting legacy is his literature, especially his great play, Doctor Faustus.
Doctor Faustus follows a Renaissance alchemist as he invokes demonic forces and sells his soul to achieve twenty-four years of power. He gets his own personal devil, Mephistophilis, at his beck and call, but as the play progresses, Mephistophilis is consistently able to persuade Faustus to settle for pleasures and powers baser and less ambitious. As his end approaches, Faustus toys with repentance but is cowed back into submission and is implicitly dragged to hell in the end.
The literal “sell-your-soul-to-the-devil” trope is so familiar by now that it has long since passed into cliché. But while the Faust legend predated Marlowe, his was one of the earliest truly popular versions, unrivaled in critical success until Goethe two centuries later. What makes Marlowe’s Faustus so compelling, then and now, is not that he stands alone, an Elizabethan after-school special warning against Satanism, but that, in an important way, he is Marlowe, and he is all of us.
It is tempting to dismiss Marlowe’s Faustus from the outset because of his comically hyperbolic arrogance. The would-be Renaissance man is a dilettante who can’t settle on any one field to focus on, until finally he begins tinkering with forces well beyond his pay grade, and his grandiose ambitions are juxtaposed against comic scenes of his servants with similar though smaller ambitions. Until the end, Faustus steadfastly ignores the implications of his demonic pact, even in the play’s most chilling scene, when Mephistophilis himself attempts to talk Faustus out of making the deal:
FAUSTUS. Where are you damned?
MEPHISTOPHILIS. In hell.
FAUSTUS. How comes it then that thou art out of hell?
MEPHISTOPHILIS. Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I that saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of heaven
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?
O, Faustus, leave these frivolous demands,
Which strike a terror to my fainting soul. (1.3.299-308)
This exchange is fascinating, because by all rights, Mephistophilis should be trying to convince Faustus to go forward with the bargain. Yet hell is so terrifyingly real to him that for just a moment, even this devil cannot help but try to dissuade him.
Of course, Faustus in his pride nonetheless completes the deal. But before we dismiss him too quickly, we do well to remember all the little ways in which we ourselves are Faustuses. We all — Christian or not — make our own deals with the devil in pursuit of “frivolous demands.” As the philosopher Boethius observed in The Consolation of Philosophy (a book with which Marlowe was certainly familiar), every time our arrogance, our pride, and our ambition lead us to elevate the legitimate goods of earthly life, we risk forsaking the highest Good of God. Or, as C. S. Lewis put it in “The Weight of Glory,”
f we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us… We are far too easily pleased. (26)
When we, like Faustus, seek after “drink and sex and ambition” as our ends, that which nourishes us becomes that which destroys us. Whatever the details of Christopher Marlowe’s life, it was clearly a maxim he knew well. It is a theme he wove into the structure of Doctor Faustus, a play we can still read with approval today. For whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not, every one of us at times looks as foolish as Faustus, pleasing ourselves with trifles and seeking nourishment in the poisons of the world when eternal happiness could be ours.